Frontline heroes

Nurses and other health-care professionals find themselves in a weary war against COVID-19.

The rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic has taken a physical and emotional toll on a worldwide battlefield, raging a war like never seen before. Some of the “soldiers” fighting an invisible enemy are nurses and health-care professionals who signed up to take care of the ill, but never fathomed an outbreak of a contagious disease that would sicken millions of people across the globe and derail the economy.

As citizens throughout the United States were ordered to stay home to slow the spread of COVID-19, health-care workers have emerged as heroes, praised for their compassion and work on the frontlines at a very vulnerable time. 

On the same day Dr. Tony Fauci, a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, predicted the U.S. could see 100,000 to 200,000 deaths from the pandemic, a Umatilla man’s father died from the coronavirus. 

Kent Adcock, the CEO and president of Lake-Sumter Habitat for Humanity, says his father, Larry Adcock, 86, died March 29 in Indianapolis. Ten days later, his mother, Patsy, 83, also died from the virus. The Adcock family couldn’t be at the hospital, but they were grateful for the nurse who was by their father’s side. 

“We are so very thankful that his floor nurse, who herself was a (Christian) believer, was present and holding his hand when he passed, so we know he was not alone,” Kent posts on Facebook. “Our resolve as a family is that his passing would not get absorbed as just another statistic of this deadly pandemic. My dad was an accomplished Fortune 100 executive his entire life and was quick to take his relationship with Christ into every setting where he held impact.” 

Health-care workers have been giving their all, doing what they are trained to do and also implementing new procedures to care for infected patients with mild-to-severe respiratory illnesses and symptoms of breathing difficulty, fever and cough.

“We need to sing the praises for them,” Kent adds.

Here are some of their stories:

“Everybody is supporting each other.” —Shannon Weber

Shannon Weber, nurse practitioner and hospitalist 

“I don’t think anyone could have imagined anything like this pandemic,” says Shannon Weber, who focuses on serving UF Health Leesburg Hospital while being employed through Physicians of Central Florida.

Shannon, a nurse practitioner and hospitalist, which means she provides general medical care to hospitalized patients, has seen a steady stream of COVID-19 patients at the hospital.

“I do know that feeling of not knowing what you are walking into,” says Shannon, who has worked in critical care for 22 years. “I try not to live with stress before I need the stress.” 

COVID-19 has changed many hospital procedures and protocols.

“Everybody is supporting each other, there’s always education going on, there’s always a new piece of information that we are receiving because this is all a huge learning curve,” Shannon says. “This virus hasn’t been around long enough for any real good lengthy study to have been done, so we are paying close attention to other hospitals, other countries, other states on what they’ve had to deal with on
the frontlines.” 

Shannon says Leesburg Hospital has benefited from incorporating procedures that have been useful elsewhere, such as prophylactic intubation of patients before they can no longer breathe on their own and use of the medication hydroxychloroquine to relieve acute respiratory symptoms of people who are infected.

Another preventive measure for patients arriving with respiratory trauma, Shannon says, has been to place them on a breathing machine before their condition worsens. This is based on lab findings that the neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio in their white blood cells was higher, an indicator that the patient may get worse.

“What other places have implemented, we are trying to stay ahead of (and do),” Shannon says, adding that COVID-19 is a problem because of the inflammation it causes in the lungs. “It overwhelms the lungs and that is what is ultimately getting the patients who are succumbing to it.” 

Shannon wears the proper personal protection equipment and, due to the worldwide shortage of PPE supplies, she reuses her N95 medical mask, a face-fitting respiratory protective device. The nurses reuse their N95 masks for a couple of days and then the masks are re-sterilized. 

One recent change at Leesburg Hospital while caring for COVID-19 patients: Shannon and her colleagues were advised to leave the N95 mask on all day and top it with a surgical mask when going in and out of an infected patient’s room.

“That way, the surface of the N95 mask stays clean and you’re not carrying (the contamination),” she says.

The fears from the pandemic obviously hit nurses closer to home. 

“My kids worry about me,” Shannon says of her children, ages 9, 12, 15, 24. “My father is sending me articles all the time, asking me, ‘Why aren’t they giving (health-care workers) hydroxychloroquine preventatively?’”

She tells her father: “Well, they need to have it for the people who are actively ill.”

She also heard from her sister in Germany and they compared the numbers of cases between the two countries.

“They are doing a much better job,” Shannon says of Germans following social distancing and other precautions. “They listen and are more disciplined than us Americans, so yeah, my family is worried and saying, ‘Please protect yourself.’ And I am doing everything I can.” 

Shannon tries to have some normalcy in her life with her family and outdoor activities, while also keeping an eye on coronavirus statistics worldwide to see when the case numbers may start to level off. 

“I haven’t watched Italy lately because it is devastating,” she says, adding it’s also troubling to watch how the virus has affected New York City. 

“Number one, it is a terrible disease out there. Number two, it is stupid contagious and ridiculous,” Shannon says. “I don’t think we have any clue what we are in for yet. I don’t remember when it started hitting Italy and if they were ever as slow as us, but I hope we got ahead of it.”

The rising number of cases in Florida also has been on her mind. 

“I am very concerned about that because we definitely haven’t peaked,” she says, referring to Florida’s predicted peak in early May.

Shannon also worries that social distancing was not practiced initially by some Floridians, including groups at church gatherings, boaters and people in The Villages who were photographed partying. 

“The worst thing that can happen is something happening to you or one of your children, and you can’t take that stupidity back,” she says.

The nurse practitioner adds: “Just stay away from people in general right now, and that is what the government is trying to tell us to do. We have to be careful because this is something crazy. In China, they were releasing a lot of patients that had infections and had been over the symptoms for weeks, but they are testing positive again. This could go on for a long time, and I think it is going to go on for a long time.” 

“… I need to take an extra step to remain healthy for myself and my family.” —Amy Forney

Amy Forney, emergency room nurse  

Amy Forney deals with critical care situations in the emergency room at AdventHealth Waterman in Tavares, and COVID-19 has taken “critical” to a new level.

“I cannot remember the last time I was frightened to go to work and come home to my family,” Amy says. 

“I have always known that there are scary things out there, that there are bad things happening to people in our community. I know this because I see it, hear it and live it with my patients,” she continues. “People are panicking and are very scared of this virus. It is a real pandemic. We are scared with them. Every time I enter a patient’s room, I pray for them and for me.” 

Her husband, Casey, is a Mount Dora firefighter and paramedic. 

“We both have a very real potential to being exposed to this. We have always been cautious, but even more so now,” Amy says. “Is today the day we bring home this virus to our son? Have we done enough and cleaned ourselves thoroughly enough to enter our own homes? The best we can do is the best we know how to do, and we will continue to do that.”

To stay healthy, Amy is making more concentrated efforts, including eating nutritiously, taking vitamins and supplements and getting enough sleep. 

“I cannot take care of others if I do not take care of myself, but I’m more cognizant that I need to take an extra step to remain healthy for myself and my family,” she says.

News of short supplies of personal protective equipment does apply to Waterman and other hospitals, Amy says.

“What you hear in the media is correct: we do not have enough supplies to protect ourselves with the proper equipment for each patient, every single time,” she says. “We are having to reuse masks, specifically the N95s. That alone incites fear.”

(AdventHealth Waterman states on its website: “The safety of our patients, their loved ones and our team members is our top priority. We’ve been working with our vendors and internal teams to ensure we have adequate supplies such as masks, protective equipment for team members, wipes and hand sanitizers.”)

Because of COVID-19, Amy says she and her co-workers have pondered future health-care needs.

“The hope is for our health-care system to be more prepared with supplies and proactive in initiating disaster relief plans; not necessarily a change to a health-care policy, but to use this current pandemic to determine the appropriate amount of emergency PPE and equipment that may be needed in the future,” she says. 

“My health, so far, has not been affected.”—Casey Forney

Casey Forney, paramedic 

“It has become a factor of consideration in every aspect of life now,” Casey Forney, a paramedic and firefighter with the Mount Dora Fire Department, says of the coronavirus. 

“My biggest concern is unknowingly carrying the virus and transmitting it to my wife and/or son,” he says. “My health, so far, has not been affected. However, I feel as though it’s only a matter of time.” 

At the fire department, Casey says he and his peers take every precaution possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“However, we’re in such close quarters for 24 hours or more at a time that all it’d take is one accidental exposure to infect us all,” he says. 

He believes the general public’s response is more troubling.

“People aren’t staying home after being told repeatedly to stay put. This fuels the virus transmission rate, and there are substantial shortages of essential isolation equipment due to continued panic buying and hoarding,” Casey says. 

“Couple these issues together, and it’s no surprise that we have a pandemic on our hands,” he says. “I’d urge everyone to follow and stay on top of current CDC and/or WHO (World Health Organization) guidelines, and only trust reputable news sources, not social media.” 

“This virus has made me real cautious.”—James Bellan

James Bellan, private duty nurse

James Bellan provides home health nursing care for a 27-year-old man with autoimmune deficiencies and the mental capacity of a toddler.

“My main concern is somebody is going to get infected and give it to him,” says James, noting his patient lives with several family members.

James, of Paisley, is employed in DeLand with Advanced Care Agency, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities. He has been in the nursing field since 1989.

“This virus has made me real cautious, almost to being compulsively cautious,” he says.

After seeing how quickly coronavirus infected people worldwide, James adopted the mindset that everyone is infected and encouraged others to think that way, too. He also emphasizes the importance of safe social distancing, the need to wash hands often and thoroughly, and to avoid touching the face, mouth and eyes.

“You have to do that,” he says.

“I have my moments, but you definitely have to take one step at a time and live day by day.” —Erika Cruciger

Erika Cruciger, ICU nurse

Life certainly has changed for Erika Cruciger since the coronavirus outbreak. 

“It’s a little stressful. You don’t know what you’re exposed to and you don’t know what you are going into,” says Erika, a cardiovascular ICU nurse at UF Health Leesburg Hospital.

“I cry going home,” she says of the anxiety and stress. “I know worldwide everyone is feeling that as a nurse.” 

Erika has been in the nursing field for seven years and cares for open-heart surgery patients and those experiencing critical complications with the heart. She worries about these patients during the pandemic. 

“I don’t know if I am a carrier of it, and then we have these open-heart patients that are coming in and who knows what they have been exposed to,” says Erika, adding that the hospital continues to perform emergency surgeries for people experiencing life-threatening conditions. 

“Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer and we still have people out there having heart attacks, and that is why it is important to social distance, to stay home, because we need to have enough rooms, beds, ventilators, not only for COVID, but for other situations when people come with heart attacks, surgeries and other things that require PPE,” she says. 

Erika finds it troubling when hospitals worldwide lack personal protective equipment or nurses go without a mask when caring for patients because there are not enough to meet the demand. 

“Well, nurses can’t social distance (away from patients), and that is my other issue with the whole lack of masks—there is no 6 feet away for nurses,” Erika says.

While COVID-19 is causing hospitals to change policies day to day, Erika is grateful for her colleagues. 

“Nurses support each other, especially on my unit, we definitely do,” she says.

“We are putting our family in harm’s way, essentially bringing it home to our kids, and we don’t know if we are carrying it,” Erika adds. “Pretty much a lot of nurses are self-quarantining themselves even away from their families to protect them.” 

She says it has been tough not being able to visit her extended family as well.

“My mom is a heart patient, so I haven’t seen my mom in a very long time, so thank goodness for FaceTime,” she says of the video telephone product. “I am coming home to my kids right now, but I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for that not to be able to happen. There could be a date and time that they mandate to us that we have to work more.”

Erika typically works 12-hour shifts, three days a week. Her husband, Michael, is off work during the days she works. 

At home, she focuses on being a mom to their 9-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter.

“I try to be home with my kids and be present with them,” Erika says. “I also strive to be positive, stay focused on my health.” 

She makes efforts to stay hydrated, get as much rest as possible and exercise by going outside with her children. 

“If you mentally prepare yourself with positive thinking and don’t watch all of the TV news and you just live day by day in your moment, I feel like that is a big help,” Erika says. “I have to be strong as much as I want to cry and break down all the time. I have my moments, but you definitely have to take one step at a time and live day by day. But I definitely miss friends and family.” 

Looking to the future, Erika hopes COVID-19 is a wake-up call nationally and globally about the lack of pandemic preparedness.

“I hope that this brings awareness that people don’t think about. The government doesn’t realize how vulnerable we are, the hospitals are, and supplies and ventilators that are always needed. But they have such a tight budget on us, and I just feel we are one crisis away from a health-care shutdown,” Erika says. “I feel like they need to put hospitals and health-care workers first. Without your health, nothing else matters.” 

She feels social distancing should be practiced during normal flu season every year.

“This is not going to be the first pandemic. There will be others. This is just not going to disappear. Maybe this will be an eye-opener for the way we live now,” says Erika, sharing a paraphrased quote from philosopher George Santayana: “Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.”   


COVID-19 timeline

Dec. 31, 2019 

Chinese authorities alert the World Health Organization of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause in Wuhan City, Hubei province. The mystery illness was determined to be a novel coronavirus causing
a new disease that later was named COVID-19.

Jan. 20, 2020 

U.S. reports its first COVID-19 case in Snohomish County, Washington.

March 1 

Florida has its first confirmed case of COVID-19.

March 28 

COVID-19 cases surpass 600,000 worldwide.

March 29 

Global death toll from COVID-19 surpasses 30,000.

March 31

U.S. scientists estimate the virus could kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans.

April 1 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announces 30-day stay-at-home order for state’s nearly 21 million residents unless they are pursuing “essential services or activities.”

April 2 

Lake County and Sumter County each report their first two deaths from coronavirus.

April 6 

Global cases of COVID-19 top 1.2 million and deaths approach 70,000.

April 14 

Global cases of COVID-19 approach 2 million, with nearly 125,000 deaths.

Sources: WHO, CDC, Florida Department of Health, Johns Hopkins University


Rallying the ‘troops’

Health-care workers represent one of the largest workforces in Lake County. Here is the number of employees at the major hospitals, according to spokespeople:

1,808 | AdventHealth Waterman

1,754 | UF Health Leesburg Hospital

1,500+ | Orlando Health South Lake Hospital

1,227 | UF Health The Villages Hospital


 

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